The southern Indian state of Kerala is filled with “backwaters,” hidden canals and streams that villagers use for fishing, farming, and transportation. Half of the year the backwaters contain fresh water and the other half salt water. During our time in Kerala, it was the salt water period and there were different fish from the fresh water period. One of the most fun things to do in Kerala is to explore the backwaters, and we were lucky to spend a couple of days on different boats.
First, in the town of Alleppey in Kerala, we decided to spend the night exploring the backwaters on a houseboat. I had no idea what to expect because I had never been on a houseboat before. From our guesthouse, we took a tuk tuk to a little dock next to a lake, and waiting for us was a big houseboat with three crew members. The houseboat was much bigger and fancier than I expected: there was even a TV! The back had a big kitchen and little place to look out from. Then there were two bedrooms with a bathroom for each one, and a dining room where we would have all our meals. At the very front was a nice sitting area with couches and chairs and fans. That was also where the steering wheel and levers to control the boat were located, so as we sat we could watch the crew steer the boat. We spent the day sitting around in the couches, watching the canal go by, playing cards and talking about how nice it all was. At lunchtime, the crew brought us a huge feast of fruit, different curries, rice and bread, and Indian pickle that was really good and spicy. We stopped at a little island and we found some coconuts. Some guys from another boat got a coconut down from a tree for me and showed me how to open it up by smashing it on a rock, and we took photos with them which was fun. They were visiting from Kochi, where we had also visited.
After lunch, we kept cruising around the backwaters, munching on my coconut. I also found a big bundle of rope under the sink and I used my pocket knife to attach the coconut to the rope to try to fish off the side of the houseboat. I tried for about three hours, but no luck! We saw a lot of other houseboats with people cruising, and one time we saw a boat with tons of people partying on it. On the shores we passed little villages and temples and rice paddies, and lots of people fishing on little canoes. We didn’t see any cars, because the people get around by boat in the backwaters.
Eventually we got to a small village and we docked and took a little walk while the sun was setting. We saw lots of other tourists including a French family in the boat next door. We met some local guys hanging out by the water and they said this was their village. Then it was time for dinner, so we went back to our boat for another delicious feast. We watched a little bit of a movie but it was sort of hard to hear, so we turned it off and went to bed.
It was so easy to fall asleep on the boat because the gentle rocking made me feel relaxed and tired. In the morning, I woke up but Miles wasn’t next to me, and I thought, that’s funny, so I got dressed and went outside, and I saw that everyone else was already up! At that point, I was famished, but luckily there was another delicious feast for breakfast with eggs and sambal which is made of shredded coconut and spices, and curries. It was time to head back to shore so we took a few more hours and got back to Alleppey. To get off our boat, we had to climb over other houseboats to the shore, and I liked this part because I felt like a pirate boarding other people’s ships! I really didn’t want to leave our boat because it was so much fun – but little did I know that in a few days, we would have another boat experience in India!
From Alleppey, we went on to stay at the great beach town of Odayam, near Varkala. I really liked it there because we got to play on the beach every day. We also got to spend another memorable day boating around Munroe Island. To get there we took a forty-minute car drive to a little town. Just as we got there, a little canoe came rafting up a stream to our right and the car driver told us that this was our boat. The boat was a carved from wood and had some paint covering it to make it waterproof. It was driven by a very kind man at the back who pushed a long bamboo pole along the ground under the water to move the canoe forward. In the boat, there were a few wooden planks for passengers to sit on. The minute we sat down on the benches it started to rain a little bit, but luckily for us there were umbrellas in the boat. The rain felt pretty nice because it was so hot in India!
As we cruised around in the boat we went past small village houses on each side. We could see a lot of ducks chattering around the houses. Eventually we came to a small building where the driver told us to get out, and I wondered if it was already the end of our tour. He brought us into a small building and explained that this was the place where they made rope for boats and other purposes using coconut fibre. This rope is called “coir”. We saw a man putting coconut shells into a small, simple machine that separated the fibre from the coconut shell. At the same time, the coconuts were pressed to make coconut oil, which is used for everything from cooking to putting in your hair. Miles and I both thought the smell of coconut oil cooking was really bad! But the coconut tasted good. The machine was also baking and drying the coconut. The fibre looked like a big furry mess at this point, and I couldn’t imagine how it would make rope!
We went outside and saw huge bags stuffed with coconut fibre. From there, the driver took us on a little walk to another building where there were a few simple metal wheels. As we got there, a woman came out and the driver spoke to her in Hindi and she took some coconut fibre and attached it to the wheel. She beckoned for Miles to come to the wheel and she showed him how to spin the wheel while she pulled the fibre, and we saw the furry mess turn into a furry, strong rope. I got a turn too, and we got to keep the rope we made. I also saw some less furry rope, and she explained that this was also made from coconut but it gets smoother as they soak it for up to a month in water. After that, the woman explained that everything is made from “coir”, even bed mattresses! Then we took another little walk to a tea shop where we had some delicious masala chai, which is tea with all kinds of spices mixed in, and we got to see them mixing it all together into the tea.
From there, we went on with our canoe trip. There were tiny little streams and very low bridges that went across. We got to one bridge that was so low that we couldn’t imagine how we would fit under it until the driver said, “Duck!” Miles, Dad and I all had to go to the front of the canoe and lie down on our stomachs! As the canoe passed under the tiny bridge, our driver also lay down while pushing the boat forward. We had a few more of these encounters with tiny bridges, and on one of the last ones, as we were ducking, the bridge was so low that the driver actually jumped off the boat and over the bridge and back onto the boat without tipping us over!
Along the way we saw women washing clothes on big stones in front of their houses, soaping them up and pounding them on the stone. The driver called this the “Kerala washing machine” and we all laughed. We also saw some kingfisher birds which are very beautiful. As we were passing one kingfisher, we saw a big net draped over a square area in the water. We asked what that was for, and the driver explained that it was prawn farming. The nets are there to keep the kingfishers and other birds from eating the prawns. Once, when we were passing another bridge, we saw a big boat of tourists who had a very hard time fitting under the bridge, which made us laugh!
Finally, our tour was over. It was so spectacular and extraordinary in the backwaters, because it was beautiful and peaceful and different from my usual life. I really liked both our boat experiences in India, and all the things we got to see and do in the backwaters.